Speaking in Tongues

In Friends, International, Self Improvement on March 15, 2009 at 12:05 pm

I practiced it a hundred times before I finally tried it on a real person.


Dr. Okash looked surprised.

“Did I say that right? Is that how you say hello?” I said quickly.

“Yes, but it sounds a little more like this.” He demonstrated. Then he asked, “Are you trying to learn Arabic?”

I’m not sure what I’m doing. I work peripherally with many students from other countries, the majority of them Arabic-speaking. Some of them have asked me how to say something in English or what an English word means, and it occurred to me that I should be making some effort to learn their language. Americans are so arrogant about learning other languages, figuring that it is the foreigner’s responsibility to learn English.  I figured that learning to say hello and goodbye was the least I could do.

I tried out my new phrases on a few more of the students and soon had them correcting my pronunciation and adding new words to my vocabulary list. The next thing I knew I had sent for a set of CDs for learning Arabic. I was surprised at how excited I was as I put them in my CD player and began practicing even more new phrases. If you would have asked me a few months ago if I would ever consider learning Arabic, I would have said you were nuts. What a difficult language that must be! And what would I ever use it for?

Sometimes you just have to follow your instincts. Since I learned how to say hello, goodbye, how are you, I’m fine and so on, the students I’ve practiced on have opened up more about  their countries and themselves. I’m not carrying on conversations in Arabic, but the fact that I’ve made the effort to learn a little of their language has broken the ice. I think they feel more welcome and I feel more connected to the larger world out there.

I had the same sensations and reactions when I started teaching myself German about ten years ago. The mere act of attempting to learn a new language is mind-expanding. And I found that the more I learned of the language, the more I got a sense of the people who speak it. I still can carry on only the most rudimentary conversations in German, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that I’ve tried. And in many ways I’ve succeeded. I can watch a German movie and understand a good deal of what’s being said without looking at the subtitles. I can eavesdrop on my husband when he’s speaking on the phone to his family members in Germany. I can tell my husband that I love him in his own language.

My husband’s English is so good and he is so used to speaking in me in English, I never get much of a chance to practice German with him. And I doubt that I will ever carry on long conversations in Arabic with the students I work with. But the fact that I’ve made steps in their direction means that I’ve tried to understand them and not just expected them to do all the work of understanding me.

I feel good about that.


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